Ever since Europeans first encountered them, the natural landscapes of America have been spoken of with awe. ‘Here, nature has conducted her operations on a magnificent scale,’ observed a leading New Yorker in 1816; ‘this wild romantic and awful scenery is calculated to produce a corresponding impression on the imagination.’ The term ‘sublime’ had been used in Europe from the eighteenth century to describe this imaginative response to immensity or boundlessness. Such qualities epitomised the New World landscape.
For a century after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, many aspects of culture in the United States continued to embrace British influences. This is particularly true of landscape painting, which reached a climax in Britain with the generation of Constable and Turner in the first half of the nineteenth century. American artists, several of them recent emigrants from England, adapted and invigorated the conventions of British landscape painting in response to the astonishing variety and grandeur of American scenery.
The State of New York and the New England region offered rugged mountainous landscapes as well as tranquil vistas of valley and coastline: these are represented in the early rooms of this exhibition. As the century progressed, artists sought ever more dramatic subjects in the Americas. The second half of the exhibition follows Frederic Church to the Andean volcanoes of Ecuador and icebergs off Newfoundland, and documents the explorations of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran among the deserts, mountains and canyons of the western USA. By the 1850s, ‘Great Pictures’ by Church and others were being exhibited and widely admired in Britain, where the Americans were seen by some critics as the true inheritors of the tradition of British landscape painting.